When in 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head whilst attending the theatre, the United States of America was granted one of its most tempting historical what-ifs. Lincoln is perhaps the most fictionalised of all American presidents, and he holds that distinction because his story feels incomplete; to fight the Civil War and be murdered just days after winning it makes for an unsatisfying narrative. Writers have found this itch irrestsistable, and have consequently been scratching it for 150 years.
It’s typical of the puckish short story writer George Saunders, then, that the Lincoln who features in the title of his first novel is not Abraham but Willie. Lincoln in the Bardo‘s eponymous protagonist is the president’s son, who died in 1862 at the age of just eleven. The bardo of the title, meanwhile, isn’t really the liminal space between lives of Buddhist cosmology, but more a sort of purgatory for spirits yet to accept the reality of their own death. In the wake of his untimely passing, Willie Lincoln lingers – as children are not meant to – in this realm, encouraged to do so by his father’s penchant for visiting Willie’s “sick-form” – the boy’s corpse, euphemistically imagined by these ghosts-in-denial – in the Union Hill chapel during the nights between his death and burial. Could the mighty Abe Lincoln bring his son back to life?
Of course not. But Lincoln in the Bardo depicts the magnetism of a series of absurd beliefs, assumptions and self-perceptions, becoming a curiously bifurcated novel of both broad humour and often moving grief. Willie meets in the afterlife Saunders’ primary narrators – a young homosexual man who committed suicide before immediately regretting it, an old merchant who practiced guilty abstinence in his marriage with a beautiful young bride, reaching the potential for consummation only in the hours before his own accidental death, and a revenant reverend who cannot understand why he is yet to pass through to heaven. In a Dantean touch, Saunders gives his ghosts physical forms that reflect their reasons for lingering: Blevins, the suicide, has many hands, nostrils and eyes, as if to mourn all the sensations he never experienced; Vollman, the frustrated husband, walks around with a persistent, and gigantic, erection.
It’s not always clear what Saunders means to satirise in all this. His lauded short stories have, when criticised at all, sometimes been accused of being too on-the-button in their targets: consistently, white collar drudgery and the banality of late capitalism. It’s refreshing in some ways, then, that Lincoln in the Bardo finds in its mysticism a bit of mystery. On the other hand, the ocassionally unadorned humour and slapstick often feel like distractions from the beautifully painted scenes of grieving and loss. “A century and a half has passed,” opines one of the many secondary historical sources – real and invented – which Saunders uses to paint the background for his hauntings, “and yet it still seems intrusive to dwell upon that horrible scene – the shock, the querulous disbelief, the savage cries of sorrow” [p. 56]. It is Saunders’ project to intrude.
The ghosts act as a chorus, an increasingly and endlessly varied cast of colourful characters who tell us their own stories but in so doing build up a patchwork narrative of the variegated nation of the United States. They tell their stories whilst coming together to save Willie by convincing Abraham, who has given them hope and self-respect by visiting their realm of torpor, nevertheless to leave the chapel and thus allow Willie to pass through the bardo before, by the obscure rules of this cosmos which brook no childish tarrying, he is forever bound to it. In this effort the ghosts begin to enter the President, and in so doing they achieve the kind of empathy, the kind of understanding, denied to historians by his assassination.
Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live? […]
Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begin so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.
Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.
He would lead the rabble in managing.
The thing would be won. [pp. 307-8]
The novel’s central moral dilemma is simple: Lincoln, grieving for his own son, must send many others to their deaths in battle. In learning through the course of the novel about the lives and deaths of men and women from the birth of the republic onwards, the reader understands how variegated and vital every life lost is, what a tragedy every death can be. But, as the ghosts must, Lincoln comes to accept death in order to move through crisis to a new state. This is a fairly bleak message for a novel so often as hilarious as this one. On the other hand, Lincoln in the Bardo can sometimes seem like an awful lot of fuss simply to arrive at a rationalisation for the American Civil War.
Perhaps this is a novel most relevant to American perspectives – although its reception there has been quite cool in the context of the rapture with which Saunders is usually greeted. Perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo speaks to the American project, but in the age of Trump does so a little too quietly, even sentimentally. After all, this is a novel which ends with Lincoln walking back to the White House possessed by the ghost of a slave (“we rode forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen” [p. 343]). It means less to a British reader, perhaps, to achieve empathy with the sixteenth President; oddly, it may in this moment feel less urgent an undertaking to the American, too.
All that said, Lincoln in the Bardo is simply beautifully written. Its innovations are touted in the blurb as “a thrilling new form”, and that’s a bit much – this is a mosaic novel, equal parts scrapbook and script. But each of its many voices are realised wonderfully, the jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny, and the pace is usually perfect, the swings of mood elegant and never abrupt even when they are severe. Saunders is a master. Here he is writing William, in one of the novel’s most moving passages:
Mother says I may taste of the candy city Once I am up and about. She has saved me a chocolate fish and a bee of honey. Says I will someday command a regiment. Live in a grand old house. Marry some sweet & pretty thing. Have little ones of my own. Ha ha. I like that. All of us will meet in my grand old house and have a fine. I will make the jolliest old lady, Mother says. You boys will bring me cakes. Round the clock. While I just sit. How fat I will be. You boys must buy a cart and take turns wheeling me around ha ha [p. 115]
This, of course, is a scene on Willie’s deathbed. Lincoln in the Bardo is never afraid to sound these plaintive notes, and many are painful in their purity. It’s simply sometimes harder, amidst all these scenes and voices and skits and confusions, to hear the melody amidst the chords.